I’ve used the National Geographic Topo! mapping product for years as a desktop computer application. Truly, Topo! was nothing to dance in the streets about, and is even less so considering today’s plethora of mapping products (including free stuff such as Google Earth, Google Maps and Caltopo). Topo! is simply a huge pile of stitched USGS topo maps with kludgy GPS tools overlayed. Indeed, the Topo! route drawing tools are some of the worst I’ve used, but the GPS data manipulation features of Topo! are useful. You can create GPS routes and export resulting .GPX files, manipulate waypoints in various ways, convert coordinates to different systems, and so on.
The NG “Ultimate Outdoor Map Kit” product, desktop component, attempts to provide the Topo! USGS maps (cloud based instead of stored on your desktop) along with five map layers (the usual “free” Google stuff that’s makes you laugh when you see it advertised as part of something you pay for, Trails Illustrated, Topo!). Added on top of that is a truly basic route drawing tool and a database of “trails” that appears to be the AllTrails application lashed on to the National Geographic map base.
If you want simplicity you’ll get it here. Nonetheless, prepare to be confused. For example, if you want to plan a route near Innsbruck, Austria, you’ll see all the mapping layer options. But click on Trails Illustrated and you’ll get a greyed out version of Google Street. This is 2013, would it be so hard for this software to know that you’re looking at a region that’s not covered by Trails Illustrated, and to not show a menu option for that particular map? I mean, come on!
The Map Kit route drawing tool works by dropping waypoints each time you left-click your mouse, then connecting with straight line segments. I found this to be tedious for long, complex routes. There is no freehand route tool for drawing tight complex curves. When using over Google Terrain view, you can’t enlarge enough to drop points accurately (as pictured). Instead, you have to use the Topo! maps. I found this to be very odd, since when you’re in Google Maps via Google, the terrain view will enlarge several steps bigger. Sometimes Google Terrain view is highly accurate, crisp, and easy to work with. To have it crippled in MapKit is tragic.
Unlike the desktop version of Topo! Map Kit has virtually no way (that I could find, anyway) of working with actual GPS numeric coordinates. In other words, even if you know the precise GPS numbers for a specific location (say, the exact spot you got married) there is no way of simply entering those numbers and creating a waypoint. This is a surprising lack of function, but makes sense if you look at Map Kit as a severely dumbed down mapping product. Granted, with the Pro version of Map Kit you can upload a .GPX file. But in that case, why start or end with Map Kit? If you’re conversant with creating .GPX files and moving them around, scores of other applications exist for your world.
In summary, here is what you get with the Map Kit desktop component:
– A few map layers
– A database of “trails” some of which have GPS tracks, and some that don’t. No way to know till you search.
– Trails can have associated photos, but I never did figure out how to attach a photo to a specific point on a trail — a totally intuitive process with some competitors.
– The “AllTrails” component has a few features some folks might like, essentially a database of trails with somewhat of a user community
Conclusion: Map Kit and AllTrails on the desktop are both underwhelming. Route creation tool is too simplistic. No way to publish/embed created routes on another website (such as here at WildSnow.com). Interface, retail packaging and PR seem to over-promise and under-deliver. Ultimate simplicity could be a plus if you want the most basic mapping application imaginable. Along with that, AllTrails has attempted to create a large database of North American trails. Problem is, you don’t know which of those trails has details and which are simply a listing of a name and a mark on the map (those appear to be filler that All Trails uses to puff up their database). Overall, the only reason I can see to use Map Kit is that it provides a reasonably interfaced way to print out topo maps with your routes marked on them. On the other hand, $39.95 seems pricey when you can do the same thing for free in various ways — and who needs printed maps, anyway?
All Trails app, Android
National Geographic must have panicked then locked up their wallet when they realized smartphones were taking over the mapping market. Instead of developing a mapping and GPS app from the ground up, they partnered with AllTrails. This essentially gave them a user base and database of North American trails, along with a an under-featured and difficult to use app that I’d prefer to not be reviewing.
But in the interest of the blog nation:
The main deal-breaker for me with the AllTrails app is its lack of user-defined map caching to allow offline use. Yes, the app does cache maps, but to do so you have to find a specific trail, view it, then save to a “list” so the maps can cache in the background. As far as I can tell, the app has no method for you to simply pick a map region and and save it on the phone so it’s available later when you don’t have a data connection. Moreover, I see no option for purchasing map cards, or using third-party maps such as the pile of Garmin compatible charts you’ve acquired over the years.
All Trails offers no choice of map or satellite view layers. The maps they use are fairly crisp topo maps, but lack the detail of classic USGS topo maps. With other apps I’ve gotten used to switching map layers depending on needs. Not having that option is another deal-breaker and appears juvenile.
Moving along, while AllTrails does do GPS tracking, the app provides little in the way of GPS information screens and no customized GPS settings such as sampling interval. Moreover, using the maps on my Android device confuses. I tried to zoom and view a mountain some distance from my location. As I finger swipe scrolled, the screen kept jumping from the mountain back to my location. When double finger swiping to enlarge, the screen view hops around in a seemingly random fashion. Frustrating.
Beyond all that, perhaps the biggest turnoff is that you’ll pay $49.99 a year for the privilege of using AllTrails. That’s rather steep, even unrealistic. Or, perhaps the big bummer is that nearly every time I load AllTrails, I get pre-roll advertising on my smartphone screen!? Did I miss something about that in the user agreement? Lame.
Come to think of it, AllTrails claims they have “more than 200,000” members. Do the math. 200,000 x $49.99 = gross revenue of nearly ten million dollars a year! And for that, they give us the meager app I have here on my phone — when independent builders are doing GPS smartphone apps that easily have three times the functionality? Something is off. Perhaps Nat Geo is using that revenue to produce TV shows about treasure hunting? I have to say, I doubt those prospectors are using AllTrails for their GPS.
Conclusion: Not recommended.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.